What should we make of the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s order sending a suit alleging injuries from an earthquake back to the trial court? Did the court unleash the lions, tigers and bears of the litigation world … or not? At this point, the answer is, not much for an injection well operator to worry about now. This was a procedural ruling.
Faced with a motion to dismiss, the court concluded that the district court, and not the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, has exclusive jurisdiction over the claims.
Ladra v. New Dominion is a private tort action in which a homeowner seeks damages for personal injuries and property damages she alleges were proximately caused by wastewater injection wells in Lincoln County, Oklahoma.
Since 2009 Oklahoma has experienced a drastic increase in the frequency and severity of earthquakes. The one at issue for Ms. Ladra was 5.0 in magnitude. Her house shook, the chimney fell into the living room, rocks fell and caused her significant injury to her knees and legs, says the petition.
In Oklahoma procedure, a motion to dismiss is generally viewed with disfavor. The court is to accept as true all of the plaintiff’s factual allegations, with all reasonable inferences to be drawn from them. The moving party bears the burden to show the legal insufficiency of the petition.
What the ruling actually did
The court’s conclusion was that the OCC’s jurisdiction is limited solely to the resolution of public rights, and the agency has no authority to hear and determine disputes between private parties in which the public interest is not involved. The OCC has no authority to entertain a suit for damages. Private tort actions are exclusively within the jurisdiction of district courts. By the same token, an OCC order approving an operation (such as a disposal well permit) does not immunize an operator from lawsuits in the district courts.
- This ruling has nothing to do with the substance of the plaintiff’s claims. It’s about jurisdiction.
- Don’t try to predict the outcome. There is lots scientific of evidence to develop, and there is the question of how an Oklahoma jury might balance the value of hydraulic fracturing against health and safety of residents living close to injection wells.
- Operators are fond of saying that the typical earthquake in the vicinity of wastewater injection wells is minimal – 2.0 or 3.0 on the Richter scale. But this one is alleged to have been 5.0, which in the world of seismology exponentially more severe than a 2.0 or 3.0.
- 2.0 to 3.9 earthquake damage ranges from felt slightly by some people, no damage, to noticeable shaking of interior objects (2.0 o 2.9); generally none to minimal damages, some objects may fall off shelves (4.0 to 4.9).
- 5.0 to 5.9: Can cause damage of varying severity to poorly constructed buildings; none to slight damage to all other buildings. Felt by everyone.
- Despite the breathless anticipation from radical environmental groups, this ruling does not present the demise of hydraulic fracturing.
In the end, it could be a good day for someone.